Promotion and Relegation in U.S. Sports?

We’re at the point in the year when NBA basketball teams struggling towards the bottom of the standings start to play their reserves and rest their stars — subtly, of course, so as not to irritate the league brass — in order to secure their chance at receiving a high draft pick. Tanking, as it’s known, is common in American sports.

(To be clear, I’m not saying players are giving less than their full effort. After all, why would you half-ass your way out of a job, making yourself look bad and less likely to secure the next job? Many of these reserves and younger players are playing their hearts out. This is a management strategy, not a player strategy, most exemplified by “The Process”, as defined by former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie.)

Meanwhile, across the pond, the Premier League action is just as exciting at the bottom as at the top, as bottom-dwelling teams engage in a spirited dogfight to avoid being relegated. Sadly, in many cases, it’s not just the team’s status that’s at stake, but that of the whole town. In the Netflix documentary on Sunderland, the chief executive noted that because of the team’s recent relegation from the Premier League, revenue dropped from $100 million to $40 million. (When I watch this documentary, it confirms my impression that England, outside of London, can be really depressing.)

Which brings us to the dinner party question global sports fans love to debate these days: Why don’t Americans, who preach the rugged discipline of capitalism practically from birth, use the promotion and relegation system in our sports leagues?

What Is Promotion and Relegation?
For the uninitiated, promotion and relegation is the system used in global soccer, as well as many other sports. At the end of the season, the top three teams get promoted to a higher league and the bottom three teams get relegated to a lower league. (Of course, at the country’s highest league, e.g., the Premier League in England, there is no promotion from, only relegation from and promotion to.) So, while Manchester City and Liverpool battling for the title is an intriguing storyline, Newcastle, Cardiff and Southampton battling merely to stay in the Premier League can be just as compelling. (Given the current table, the bottom two, Fulham and Huddersfield, appear almost certain to be relegated.) And, in fact, to those teams and their respective towns, it can be much more (economically) impactful, as the aforementioned Sunderland example demonstrates.

Now back to American sports. Are Thanksgiving Day games involving the Detroit Lions going to become more interesting? Are Minnesota Timberwolves games going to become must-see TV? Are Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets games going to garner more viewers? In a word, no. (Except to fans of those respective teams.)

Would It Work for U.S. Sports?
For American professional football, baseball and basketball, a promotion and relegation system wouldn’t work. (I’m excluding hockey only due to my own lack of knowledge about the sport.) First, this system wouldn’t even be necessary, as these leagues don’t have much competition globally. They’re generally considered the cream of the crop worldwide. (Not necessarily because of American athletic superiority but because other countries don’t get absorbed in these sports the way we do.) Indeed, players whose decline in ability renders them unable to compete in American leagues can usually resume their careers simply by decamping to a vastly inferior league overseas, where they often become stars. American professional football doesn’t even have much of a global equivalent.

Domestically there isn’t much competition either, which brings us to the second reason. Other professional leagues here serve merely as development vehicles for the major league franchises and often operate in close partnership with them. The NCAA, which appears to be professional in everything but name, serves as the method to develop top players after secondary school. (This could, should, and has merited a much deeper discussion.) As great as the Alabama Crimson Tide are, and as awful as the Cleveland Browns are, the Crimson Tide would not be competitive with the Browns. (Sorry, Alabama fans.) While Americans take this collegiate apprenticeship model for granted in our sports, this is simply anathema to European sports. Ask Britons if they can imagine the University of Oxford fielding a soccer team and sending players to Manchester United and note the confused expressions on their faces. (But don’t call it soccer or those expressions may change.)

Finally, astute readers will have noted my use of the term franchise to describe American professional sports teams. As defined by Merriam-Webster, the third definition of franchise is “the right of membership in a professional sports league.” The second definition is “the right or license granted to an individual or group to market a company’s goods or services” (like a fast food franchise). And this epitomizes what American professional sports teams are. The franchise owners work together in order to maximize their interests and coordinate their territories, which means demotion of individual franchises is out of the question.

But What About Soccer?
For American professional soccer, however, promotion and relegation would be preferable. Unlike other American professional sports, soccer leagues compete for viewership with vastly superior products overseas (i.e., leagues, teams and players). Also, the NCAA and the lower leagues, as they are run now, are not sufficient avenues for player development, as was made painfully obvious by the failure of the U.S. men’s national team to qualify for the World Cup. U.S. soccer has proven to be an insular world at all levels, from the professional leagues that are run as a cabal of franchise owners to the pay-for-play model of youth development that routinely excludes minority and immigrant kids from proper development channels. Promotion and relegation would help install a culture of competitiveness and inclusivity within U.S. soccer, as lower leagues would be incentivized to invest, find and develop talent, and field a competitive product to strive for promotion and garner more revenue, and poorly-managed top-tier teams would be weeded out. Wow, that sounds really capitalist!

(Regarding youth development, let’s be clear that a promotion and relegation system, while it would be a great start, would not be a panacea and the problems in this area merit a full discussion and require continued intervention from the U.S. Soccer Federation. And yes, I know that sounds socialist.)

So promotion wouldn’t work for other major U.S. sports, but would be great for American professional soccer, both for developing players and potentially improving the overall product. Let’s do it! Why not?

But here comes that word again: franchise. Like other American sports, Major League Soccer (MLS) teams are franchises, essentially local vessels of one organization. MLS’s goal is to maximize revenue for its franchisees, not to maximize the quality of the overall product. As any card-carrying capitalist who has taken Economics 101 can tell you, in competitive enterprises there are winners and losers. The problem with Major League Soccer is that no individual franchise wants to be a loser, i.e., be relegated. Or stated more accurately, the problem is that MLS won’t let any franchise risk being relegated. So we are stuck with a mediocre product in which the franchise owners continue to make steady profits. As opposed to superior products overseas where some franchises make tremendous profits (Manchester United reported revenue of £613 million, or $817 million, in 2018), and others like Sunderland get relegated and struggle.

So, no, this is definitely not happening in American soccer. At least not at the top tier. (There has been discussion of promotion and relegation within lower levels.) In the meantime, we can continue watching global soccer leagues and hope that, for the sake of our national team, young Americans go abroad to ply their trade in leagues with a more competitive culture. To paraphrase Horace Greeley: Go East, young man! (To Europe, not to Asia.) So far, so good, as young American players such Christian Pulisic, Weston McKinnie, Josh Sargent, Tyler Adams, and several others are doing exactly that.

U.S. wunderkind Christian Pulisic, on the right, honing his skills in a more competitive landscape. Source: The Independent

Global Landscape
Interestingly, American investors are not necessarily averse to taking risk and investing in teams within promotion and relegation systems. Stanley Kroenke, owner of the L.A. Rams team with the offense that recently embarrassed itself in the Super Bowl, also owns Arsenal, the soccer team with the defense that embarrasses itself on a regular basis. John Henry, owner of the Red Sox franchise that emerged from a long dismal spell to become a juggernaut, also owns Liverpool, which appears to be doing the same in the Premier League. Remember Sunderland? They were owned by another American, Ellis Short, until they were relegated again, to the third tier this time, and he sold them. What about Randy Lerner, the owner of the perennial NFL doormat, the Cleveland Browns. He acquired Aston Villa in 2006, when they were in the Premier League, and sold at a loss when they were relegated in 2016. So promotion and relegation is fine for foreign investments but when it comes to their own teams on U.S. soil, fuhgeddaboudit!

Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy and, more recently, Bernie Sanders have all said that the U.S. is socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else. Perhaps our sports landscape just reflects our society at large.